Conservation Corner: The Marley Affect: Do People Really Learn From the Past?


Conservation corner - spring 2007

If you touched a hot stove when you were young, odds are the experience taught you to never do it again. But when it comes to water conservation and other environmental issues, some societies appear not to learn from the past, often at their own peril.

I call this The Marley Affect* : the degree to which an individual or society is inclined or disinclined to learn from past mistakes in order to change the course of the future.

Jacob Marley, you will recall, was Ebenezer Scrooge’s late partner in A Christmas Carol. It was Marley who foretold visits from the ghosts of the past, present, and future, warning Scrooge that he must change… or else!  Everyone knows the story: Scrooge learns the error of his ways and avoids Marley’s fate.

But real life rarely has the tidy endings found in fiction. From an environmental standpoint, history is full of ghosts from the past, societies that collapsed due to mismanagement of water resources. Ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iran and Iraq) is one example. Centuries of flood irrigation hastened toxic salt buildup and turned this “Fertile Crescent” into the desert wasteland we know today.

Worldwide, flood irrigation is still practiced on 90% of irrigated land, even though 50% of the water is wasted and does not get used by the crops. In Pillar of Sand, Sandra Postel estimates that up to 2 million hectares of farmland are lost annually due to irreversible salt buildup, presenting as great a risk to modern society as it did to the ancients.

In the case of flood irrigation, it appears that lessons have not been learned from past mistakes. It’s almost enough to make Jacob Marley come back for a return engagement.

Of course, there are often political, social and economic reasons to practice wasteful irrigation or other environmentally unsustainable practices. In the time it takes you to scan this magazine, an area of Brazil’s rain forest larger than 200 football fields will be destroyed, all for short term political and economic gain.

This kind of destruction is especially ironic when one considers it is done with the full knowledge that deforestation was directly responsible for the demise of many societies, including Easter Island, Viking settlements in Greenland, the Mayan Empire and in more modern times, Haiti. These are more lessons from the past that have not been learned.

Skeptics will say that many environmental problems are overstated. They point out that doomsayers in the past have made dire predictions that did not come true because human ingenuity always rose to the challenge and came up with solutions. Some believe new technologies not available to ancient societies will prevent those ancient calamities from happening again. Perhaps they are right.

But can we really count on human ingenuity to solve all our environmental problems when so many organizations have strong political and economic interests in the status quo? In the face of recent evidence that U.S government officials for years pressured scientists to downplay the threat of global warming, one has to wonder what it takes to gain consensus and generate action on any environmental issue.

The Marley Affect is about choosing to learn from the past. This is where organizations like BCWWA can play a critical role. The Association is well poised to influence choices by society down to the individual, from the watershed down to the site. Moving towards a more sustainable approach to water resource management is an imperative we cannot ignore.

When Scrooge saw shadows of what “might be” in his future, he was inspired to change. The point of the story is that there is always hope. Today the shadows of what “might be” make headlines almost daily. This means that society is no longer ignoring them and there really is reason to hope.

Definition of the “Marley Affect”

* Consider here the use of the word ‘affect’ as a verb with two meanings: 1) to cause a change in something; and 2) to move emotionally.


By Neal Klassen, BCWWA “Watermark” contributor


Posted June 2008

Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Watermark Magazine, the official publication of the British Columbia Water & Waste Association (BCWWA).